Food for Thought: The Big Boss – When does a fight scene get too long?

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by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

There was a time when fight scenes were for entertainment, and were not an art form.  Then, in 1971, Bruce Lee introduced The Big Boss.  This film was Lee’s breakthrough in China, the beginning of his short, but legendary, career.  What makes this movie standout is its complex and emotional fight scenes.  Everyone who has seen a Bruce Lee fight scene knows that he is very emotional (which makes for some of the best fight scenes, in my opinion).  The end fight against “The Boss” is what illustrates this quality the most.

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That final fight scene is approximately six minutes long, which is a fairly long fight for a Bruce Lee film.  But, it never feels like it is too long.  Now, how does one judge whether or not a fight scene is too long?

One way to make long action sequences feel shorter is to cut away to something else (example Lord of the Rings: Two Towers – Helms Deep Battle).  Other ways, used during the final showdown between two men, are to either edit the shots or pace each shot properly.  The Big Boss builds tension in the first thirty seconds of the fight scene with a stare down.  Buildup is a key element to dishing out excitement, and is something that most fight scenes do not do today (as evident in The Raid and the Daredevil television show, to name a couple).  The Raid has fight sequences that simply start, go for quite a few minutes nonstop, and then end (which works, to a degree).  The Big Boss, on the other hand, pauses several times during the fights.  These pauses are what I call “breaks”.

Breaks are two-to-five-second pauses in a fight scene, designed to give the audience breathers, while building more tension before returning to the action.  Breaks create room for story in fight scenes.  If people fought for five-to-six constant minutes, the audience would be overwhelmed.  Big Boss uses breaks with moments such as the leg grappling scene and when the boss first pulls out the knives.  Such actions not only progress the fight scene, but also create suspense for the viewers.  And, breaks are not solely an Eastern style.  Western films such as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi also use them, but in the form of dialogue.

A modern film that uses breaks is Ip Man.  The most iconic fight scene in the film is where the titular character fights ten men at the same time.  Watch it, and observe all of the breaks. 

What I thought was weird about The Big Boss is that most of the fight scenes are short.  In the fight between the boss’s son and Lee, the fight takes three punches!  Yes, three punches!  This was the fight right before the main fight, mind you.  So, it was refreshing to see the final fight take much longer.

For me, a fight scene becomes too long when its stops being a story.  It is monotonous when it is literally all about people kicking the crap out of each other for the hell of it.  Early martial arts film understood that a fight scene needs a higher purpose.  Look at the difference between Bruce Lee’s fight scenes and modern fight scenes.  The fight in The Big Boss is about six minutes, but half of that consists of anticipation; the other half is of the actual fighting.  Today’s action movies, in general, fail to capture that feel.  Typically, all they have to offer is four minutes of merely constant fighting.  The more cinematic experience is found within The Big Boss.  Just look at the end of the fight—it’s a complete shock!  Why?  Because it’s a million times more shocking than anything seen in the film up to that point.  In other words, I wasn’t numbed by constant action before that shock occurred.  Today, it’s rare to have that experience, unless it is a brutal kill (which is usually done for no other purpose than to shock the audience with needlessly graphic violence).

While I think that this is the weakest final fight compared to the other Bruce Lee final fight scenes, The Big Boss is still nothing short of great.  (This was his first film, so his speed and intensity were not yet as masterful as his later films).  A fight scene cannot feel long; otherwise the filmmaker will lose his audience.  Granted, the scene did something no other Lee movie did, take a little too long.  Nonetheless, Lee demonstrated with this film that he knew how to make a fight scene feel like an essential part of the story.

Here is the final fight.  Let me know what you think of it.

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One thought on “Food for Thought: The Big Boss – When does a fight scene get too long?

  1. I always thought Cheng (Bruce Lee) Vs. The Boss (Yin-Chieh Han) fight in The Big Boss stood out in it’s own special way compared to the rest of his filmography. The movie in general already has a grindhouse-feel to it in a general sense, but it especially shows in the fight.

    Aside from well done, it’s also very brutal. Even during all the previous fights, Cheng was rather restrained, as he only fought for self-defense. In here, we see Cheng unleash a sheer animalistic presence; his blows and kicks against the opponent are unmerciful, and he is bent on leaving a carnage behind, regardless of the ultimate consequences.

    Speaking of which, the ferocity of the whole sequence make it apparent like Cheng may not make it out alive. Unlike most of his later movies, Bruce Lee didn’t seem immortal in this movie, and that ramped up the tension even more. Cheng’s shirt gets ripped to shreds, and his body endures a lot of punishment, although he remains unfazed, which is telling of the character’s willpower to overcome.

    Near the end, the Boss tries to dispatch Cheng with a knife throw. In a moment of dexterity, Cheng immediately lies on his back on the ground, deflects the knife with his foot, sending the blade back into the would-be killer’s torso. That’s not enough. Cheng leaps up, screams at the top of his lungs, and thrusts his fingers into the villain’s chest, and letting him bleed out all over his training lawn. Striking with every bit of energy he’s got, Cheng ultimately collapses in fatigue.

    It’s a grueling and bloody match and it ends with Cheng winning and losing at the same time; he avenges his family, but under the cost of his freedom, as he is taken away by the police like a chained beast.

    It’s also worth noting that in the original 1971 release for this movie, there was another scene that took place before the fight in question; in it, Cheng made one last visit to the Thai whorehouse and spends some quality time with another prostitute. Presumably, the theme was that Cheng wanted to enjoy his final pleasures and re-establish his masculinity before either dying or getting jailed for a long time.

    While the tastefulness of such a scene is debatable (Cheng does have a love interest, and she remains captive in the Boss’ house while he is literally busy at the brothel), the impact of it in the final fight is still noticeable. For much of the movie, and even in some of the darker moments, Cheng never broke out of his simpleton personality. With his entire family murdered and his female cousin kidnapped, Cheng feels that he has nothing for him left, except to pursue the path of the warrior, and that path includes living up his desires to the full whilst in the knowledge that he will most likely meet his own demise soon. Cheng finally leaves his life as a farm boy behind, and for better or for worse, he becomes a man.

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